This release caused a few double-takes on my part. First, there was silence from the surround channels since this is a stereo-only SACD (and actually partly mono). Secondly, I noticed the soloists were Dohnanyi himself and Janos Starker in the cello work. I looked up the original recording dates and they were in 1956, for EMI. That’s when they were just beginning recording in stereo and first two selections seem to be true stereo. Then I noticed the credit in the notes for “Bi-Channel” processing, which oddly seems to apply to everything. Perhaps only to the Piano Concerto, which seems to be not only from a mono original but like all three selections here derived from vinyl LP rather than the original tapes. The high strings are very edgy sounding on all three selections. The SACD input on my Sunfire preamp doesn’t allow use of the tone controls so nothing could be done for that. I found the CD layer with similar edgy strings but could tame it with my Benchmark DAC plus the treble control and even produce a semi-surround effect with Pro Logic II. Doing so, however, lost the slightly greater transparency of the SACD layer.
Dohnanyi was in excellent form soloing in his two keyboard works herein. (I recall an unfortunate recording of some Beethoven sonatas at the end of his life that was heavy in the wrong-note department; he is said to have died shortly after the recording session. I was fortunate to attend a workshop once led by Dohnanyi on his choral music education project in Hungary.) His Variations is one of my favorite examples of humor in concert music – the long and pretentious orchestral introduction, followed by the childlike little single-note declamation of the nursery song – which we know as Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. The influence of Rachmaninoff is not far off in this work. It’s a classic performance and good to have on SACD, but the sonics are much better on the now out-of-print Cisco vinyl reissue of the Capitol LP by the Concert Arts Orchestra, as well as the Earl Wild version on a Chesky CD.
I was unfamiliar with the lovely Concert Piece for Cello, written in 1905, one of six works he created for various solo instruments plus orchestra. Its lyricism and orchestration remembers Richard Strauss and also Brahms. Starker is superb, as expected, and has a more forward presence than Dohnanyi’s piano in the two keyboard works. The three movements of the piano concerto are performed without pause and the work is in the style of a grand rhapsody. It has a brilliant solo part and generally exhibits a more individual Hungarian/Kodaly style than the other two works. It is yet another fine piano concerto that should be getting programmed in the concert halls instead of the same old few piano concertos we are always hearing. And hopefully it would sound better than this recording.
– John Sunier